What can be done about traffic in Princeton? Everyone has a theory, but what do the experts say? The New Jersey Department of Transportation in association with the Vorhees Transportation Center in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University recently published a report about traffic in Central Jersey, called the ‘Route 1 Growth Strategy’. The full report is available
here NOTE: 6.5MB .pdf document, marked ‘draft’, but this is the final version.) The findings were also presented at the ‘Princeton Future‘ meeting on Feb 22, 2013 (link to presentation here NOTE: 4.8MB .pdf document)
The report examined the current state of traffic and land use in Central Jersey, and estimated what would happen to traffic and land use if we continued along our current development trajectory. The results are horrifying. As seen by the image at top, traffic is estimated to change from the present-day, bad situation to total gridlock under zoning build-out analysis. We think traffic is bad now, but in the future, we won’t be able to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ because of cars.
Why is this? It’s because our zoning strongly favors low-density land use. By spreading everything out, as we have done for decades, people become entirely dependent on cars to get around. As the population of the area grows, car use will also necessarily grow, making what is already a dreadful traffic situation completely unbearable. This won’t just mean agony for all of us when we get in our cars; the economy will also be severely affected by the sheer difficulty of getting around.
The new is little better for our green spaces. Despite us pumping tens of millions of dollars into open space preservation programs, low density zoning will cause continual bulldozing of our remaining farms and woodland. As seen in the graphic below, we have already paved huge areas of the State in recent decades to add low-density housing. If we carry on like this, our remaining farms and forests are on track to get bulldozed. Our recent low-density development preferences are completely unsustainable:
What is to be done? Can anything save us from a future where Central Jersey residents crawl in their cars past low density housing developments? The Route 1 Growth Strategy report pinpoints the key issues that need to be addressed:
- Imbalance between jobs and housing (workers can’t live near jobs)
- Relatively low-density development (making transit uneconomical)
- Region-wide constraints upon mobility and access (low density requires car use)
- Continuing impacts upon the environment (build out will further pollute air and water)
However, it also suggests an alternative path, which would lead to more sustainable growth. Development should be encouraged in certain ‘centers’, concentrating new housing units at defined points and preventing growth spilling out and paving the entire region. By building up urban centers at a density that supports the efficient use of transit, the percentage of the population that is dependent on car use would shrink, enabling us to get more efficient use of our existing road network. This would not prevent a certain rise in congestion. Our local economy is growing, so we have to find ways to cope with more people being around. However, the increase in congestion would be manageable, and allow necessary car journeys to be completed in a reasonable timeframe:
Where are these ‘centers’ where growth ought to be concentrated? In general they are existing urban areas where there is a baseline of population that could support transit. As seems entirely appropriate, given its history as a regional jobs center and transit node, Princeton is among the list of 41 proposed centers. Princeton is categorized as a ‘town center’, the third-largest of five development classes:
If we are going to avoid the worst-case scenario of sprawl and traffic anticipated by the Route 1 Growth Strategy report, Princeton must step up and do its bit to enable transit-oriented residential housing. The Report makes specific recommendations:
“Facilitate the creation of transit-oriented infill development and redevelopment, including workforce housing, at key locations consistent with the Regional Growth Strategy by changing plans and zoning to encourage mixed-used development at transit-supportive densities at those locations”
Princeton is an ideal site for increased density to enable a future where a greater share of the population is not beholden to the automobile. Currently, we have pockets of medium density, notably in parts of the downtown core, but most of the town is too low-density to support significant transit use, as shown by the very low ridership of the ‘FreeB’ jitney service. This is not just our conclusion, but the conclusion of the professionals who wrote the Route 1 Growth Strategy. When people ask us why ‘Walkable Princeton’ has nice things to say about developments such as the controversial AvalonBay development on Witherspoon Street, the answer is it’s because development like this is absolutely essential to preserve our future quality of life.
Our elected representatives owe it to the residents of Princeton to be honest about what the future holds. We regularly hear ‘the most important thing is to preserve the historic character of Princeton’. Yes, this is important– in fact essential. But by focusing so narrowly on the past, we neglect to make appropriate plans for the future. Some change is necessary, in fact it is overdue. Princeton should take a lead on putting in place zoning that makes transit efficient and promotes walking and biking as transportation modes. We are smart enough to do this in a way that compliments and extends the traditional downtown density that makes our town a unique and interesting place to live. But we must not drag our heels. Take responsibility now, before the region becomes crushed by traffic.